Tisha B’Av – A Reason Without a Reason

Tisha B’Av, a day of immense sorrow and crying, is upon us. How did it all start? Why have so many calamities happened to the Jewish People on this day?

The Gemara in Taanis 29a quotes a pasuk in Bamidbar 14:1, regarding the episode of the spies after they gave a slanderous report about the Land of Israel: “’The entire community raised their voices and shouted and the people wept on that night.’ Rabba said in the name of Rebbi Yochanan, ‘That night was the night of Tisha B’Av.’ Hashem said to them, ‘You cried a crying for naught and I will set for you a cry for generations.’”

My Rosh Yeshiva of blessed memory, Rav Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz zt”l, explains, as found in the Chiddushei HaLev on Eichah, that it would appear from this gemara that the Jewish people were punished not only for a lack of faith in Hashem (and the crying was a symbol that they had lacked proper faith), but that they were also punished for crying “a cry for naught.” Meaning, the Jews really didn’t have a proper reason to cry, because Hashem would have saved them and protected them from any harm. That being the case, there was a claim against the Jewish people for crying “a cry for naught,” and it is forbidden for a person to be a “crybaby,” to bemoan and cry for no reason.

The Rosh Yeshiva zt”l asked a major question on this Gemara:why were the Jews punished for crying without reason? In their eyes they had a good reason to cry;they thought they would fall by the sword and their women and children would be taken captive! Even though this was  a mistake, still, in all, according to their logic, when they did not have complete trust in Hashem they had a good reason to cry. They weren’t “crybabies,” and they did not cry for naught?

The Rosh Yeshiva zt”l answered that it must be that the Jewish people were indeed punished for not acting appropriately and crying for no reason since in truth their lives were not in danger. They really had no reason to cry, forif the Jewish people had been on a level of proper trust in Hashem then certainly they would not have acted inappropriately by crying for naught and would not have deserved punishment. So too now, where the Jews were not on a proper level of trust in Hashem, they are punished for crying and they cannot absolve themselves of punishment by claiming they did not have enough trust in Hashem, for the sin of lack of faith cannot be an excuse for acting inappropriately.

Similarly the Chofetz Chaim writes in the introduction to his book (Sefer Chofetz Chaim, lav 6): “That one who speaks and accepts loshon hara or slander also violates the Torah prohibition of ‘Do not profane My Holy Name,’ for he does not have any desire or physical pleasure to speak slanderously which would cause his evil inclination to get the better of him, therefore this sin is considered like rebelling and removing the Yoke of Heaven and one is profaning Hashem’s Holy Name.”
My Rosh Yeshiva zt”l asked: how it is possible to think that one who speaks loshon hara does not get any benefit from his deed? We see day-in and day-out people enjoying speaking loshon harah!?

The Rosh Yeshiva zt”l answered that it must be that since this benefit stems from a negative character trait [i.e. gaavah or haughtiness], that one who spoke loshon hara cannot have a more lenient punishment just because he benefited from his actions. The reason being is that a negative character trait cannot exempt a person for acting inappropriately, therefore he is judged as if he transgressed without benefiting from it one iota, which is profaning Hashem’s Holy Name and rebelling against Him.

It would seem that an action stemming from a negative character trait like a lack of trust in Hashem or haughtiness is an act without reason. This is because there is no excuse for the sin. If a person was hungry and needed to sustain himself, but his desires got the better of him and he ate non-kosher food, that would be one thing. It is a sin, but not as bad as sinning without reason, because the action at least stemmed from a positive source and the evil inclination just got the better of him and convinced him to sin. But in the case of the Jewish People in the desert, the sin began with an acceptance of loshon hara, and since their crying for no reason did not stem from anything positive or needed, it was therefore judged as  without reason, just as speaking loshon hara is considered a sin without positive motivation since it does not stem from any positive desire or need which therefore deems it a chilul Hashem.

For this reason Hashem gave us a real reason to cry, which can only be rectified by annihilating baseless hatred and loshon hara from our being, in order to bring us closer to the Final Redemption, may it come speedily in our days.

Matos and Massei – Simply for the Love of Hashem

This dvar Torah is translated and expanded upon from the Chiddushei HaLev, shmuzzin given by Rav Henach Leibowitz zt”l who was Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim.
This week is a double parsha, Matos and Massei. This week also concludes Sefer Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers ). The Haftorah is a special one for the 3 weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, taken from Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah 2:5-8):
“This is what the LORD says: ‘What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.  They did not ask,`Where is the LORD, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of deserts and rifts, a land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?’ I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable. The priests did not ask, `Where is the LORD?’ Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me. The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols.”

The Radak explains that when posuk vav (verse 6) of Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) says: “They did not ask, ‘where is the Lord,’” they did not think to acknowledge and say to themselves ‘how can we serve other gods and where is the Lord who elevated us?’ Meaning: ‘How did we throw Him, secondary after our bodies and not turn towards him?’

The Radak further explains that in posuk ches (verse 8) the phrase: “The priests did not ask ‘where is Hashem?’” This meant that the kohanim who were before Hashem the entire day and brought offerings before Him should have said to the nation who was worshipping the idol Baal: ‘Where is Hashem that you worship others instead of Him?’”

It would seem from the words of the Radak that if the kohanim would have said to the nation “where is Hashem who took you out of Egypt,” the nation would have stopped worshiping idols.

There is, though, a tremendous question on this. Isn’t it known that in the time of Yermiyahu the Evil Inclination for idols was very strong? Why would anyone think that simply hearing words like these from the mouthes of the kohanim would work to prevent them from worshipping idols?

Rather, we must say that we see from here how implicitly powerful words of love for Hashem are. Even from the strong evil inclination of idol worship it was  possible to be victorious, with mere simple words which served to emphasize the great love Hashem has for the Jewish people, and how good it is when we are in love with Him. This realization is able to inspire a person to be successful over all hardship, to overcome the evil inclination, and to return to the Holy One Blessed Be He.

May we all focus on the abundance of love Hashem has for us and the love we can have for Hashem. In this way we will all merit to be redeemed speedily in our days and to observe Tisha b’Av as a holiday instead of a fast.

Pinchas – The Role of a Leader and His Followers

The dvar Torah is based on a shmuz I heard 15 years ago from Rav Moshe Chait zt”l in Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim Jerusalem.

In this week’s Torah portion of Pinchas we find out that Moshe will not be able to enter the Land of Israel.
“And Hashem said to Moshe: ‘Go up into this mountain of Avarim, and behold the land which I have given to the children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you also shall be gathered unto the people, as Aaron your brother was gathered; because you rebelled against My commandment in the wilderness of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify Me at the waters before their eyes.’–These are the waters of Merivat-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. And Moshe spoke to Hashem, saying: ‘Let Hashem, the G-D of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of Hashem be not as sheep which have no shepherd.’ (Bamidbar, chapter 27, verses 12-17).”
The Yalkut Shimone points out that the term “spoke” (דבר) is harsh terminology, meaning that Moshe spoke to Hashem with a demanding language. This tone parallels the way in which Hashem spoke to Moshe, as we find many times in the Torah: “And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying.” This statement means that Hashem spoke to Moshe harshly, to ensure Moshe told the mitzvos to the Jewish People. Yet this is the only place we find Moshe talking this way to Hashem.

Rashi asks: Why does the Torah place this statement after Moshe found out he was going to pass away before entering the Land? Rashi answers, this is to show the righteousness of a righteous person, for they preoccupy themselves with the needs of the congregation before caring about themselves. Rashi implies that in his question he assumed that when a righteous person hears he is about to die he wants to perfect himself therefore Rashi answers that Moshe is not caring about himself rather he is dealing with the congregation.

What was the concern for the congregation? In verse 16 Moshe says “Let Hashem, the G-D of spirits…” Rashi asks why the phrase “the G-D of spirits” is mentioned here. He says that Moshe wanted to be sure a leader was chosen who could deal with everyone’s views and attitudes on their own personal level, a kind of leader that fights in the front lines rather than from a place of safety.

Rashi further points out that for this request Moshe asked G-D in a demanding or urgent manner. Why then does the verse end with the term “saying”? Rashi answers that Moshe was telling G-D I must know myself who will be the next leader. Moshe knew that a leader was integral to the lives of Israel.

Moshe finishes his speech saying “that the congregation of Hashem be not as sheep which have no shepherd.” A shepherd cares individually about every single sheep he watches.

HaRav Dovid Leibowitz ztz”l
, the found of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, said that a way to be a leader is not to be concerned about what others will think about you or your salary. Rather one must care about every single person amongst the Jewish people.

This applies to teachers as well. A rebbe has to be sure that he understands his students and that his students understand him.

When The Rosh Yeshiva, Harav Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz z”tzl, the son of Rav Dovid Leibowitz, who took over the Yeshiva after his father passed, would make his pilpul shiurim (Talmudic discourses) he would be sure to make them in a way that his students would know how to give them over just as he did. This was because if he prepared Torah and tells it over but it is not understood, he might have taken a load off his own back, but his students are now mixed up.

The Torah portion in chapter 28 concludes, after Moshe talking to G-D, with G-D talks to Moshe concerning the sacrificial offerings. Rashi asks, What is the reason for the juxtaposition of this topic with the topic of leadership that Moshe was just talking about? Rashi answers, “Hashem is saying that He must do His share but the Jewish people have to do their share as well.” If the Jews want a leader who will guide them properly they have to do their share to help out the situation.

We have to decide whether we are leaders or followers, and act accordingly.

Balak – The Extent of Free Will

In this week’s Torah Portion of Balak, an unusual encounter takes place between Bilaam and his donkey. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:6) says that ten things were created on the eve of Shabbos at twilight, one of them being the mouth of this donkey. Rashi on that Mishna explains that from the six days of creation it was decreed that the donkey of Bilaam would open his mouth and argue with him. And so the Torah writes: “Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey and she said to Bilaam, ‘What have I done to you that you struck me three times?’” (Bamidbar 22:28).
The Sforno on this verse first explains what “Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey” means: “He gave it the power to speak, similar to ‘Hashem open my lips’ (Tehillim 41:17). All this was in order to arouse Bilaam to repent, by mentioning that from Hashem comes the utterances of the tongue even to those who are not ready [to speak], certainly if one can speak [Hashem] can take away [the power of speech] from one who has the will and is prepared to speak. All this was done in order not to lose a man such as his stature.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Bilaam was the prophet of the non-Jews, which means that he not only believed in G-D but also received messages by way of prophesy from G-D. Yet he still arrogantly tried to curse the Jewish people because he was in it for the money. The Sforno says that Hashem performed the miracle of allowing Bilaam’s donkey to talk to him simply in order to give Bilaam a chance to repent. We see from this how far Hashem goes, even to save such wicked people as Bilaam. Bilaam had such incredible potential to do good and have a positive impact on the world that Hashem even puts into the existence of the world, all the way from the time of creation, the eventuality of Bilaam’s donkey being able to talk to him, just in order for Bilaam to have the potential to repent. Still in all, with all this hype, and with all the knowledge Bilaam had of Hashem and His ways, still he did not repent.  We see from here the extent of the power of free will; ultimately, Hashem grants to every Human Being the ability to choice freely, between good and evil.
The Sforno quotes a verse from Tehillim to show us that the line “Hashem opened the mouth” refers to the power of speech. The complete verse states: “Hashem open my lips, that my mouth declares Your praise” (Tehillim 41:17). The Sforno on Tehillim says that King David, the author of Tehilllim (Psalms), beseeched Hashem to “cleanse me from sin in a manner that I will be fitting to learn and in this way my mouth declares Your praise.” (Click here for Hebrew text)
The Sforno in Tehillim is pointing out a whole new level of Hashem granting the power of speech.  King David, knowing he had some faults in his lifetime, pled with G-D to erase his iniquities after he repented, in order that he could learn with an unblemished heart. Meaning, King David was asking G-D to give him the power of pure speech in order that he could praise Him authentically, in the most sublime manner.

We say this verse in Psalms everyday, three times a day, right before we start our shemoneh esrei in our prayers: “In Hebrew it is ה’ שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתך”.”  Each one of us has the ability to focus on what we say in our prayers when we declare this statement to G-D, and implore Him to cleanse us from our sins, just as King David did, in order that we can learn how to speak to Him face to face with certainty and sincerity. It is a part of our free will to realize this incredible opportunity and to work on ourselves to capitalize on it.

Chukas – Thinking Through Hardship

In this week’s Torah portion of Chukas, Aharon, the beloved Kohen Gadol [High Priest] and brother of Moshe Rabbeinu passes away. The Jewish People mourned his passing for thirty days, and afterwards HaCanaani, King of Arad, attacked the Jewish people because he heard that Aharon had died and that the Clouds of Glory, which surrounded and protected the Jews in Aharon’s merit, had left the Jewish camp. Despite this loss of protection, however, the Jews miraculously won the battle (Bamidbar 20:29, 21:1-3).
The Ralbag teaches us a lesson from this juxtaposition of events: “It is not befitting to be lazy in eulogizing a sage. Rather one should arouse himself to act with alacrity and zeal (זריזות), for this is a benefit to act swiftly in order to reach this perfection in recognizing that which was taken from them, meaning the loss of the sage. For this reason the Torah tells us that all the Jews cried over the loss of Aharon for thirty days and right next to that verse the Torah tells us about the victory over HaCanaani, King of Arad, to inform us that one who act in this way (i.e. acting quickly with alacrity to eulogize a sage) will be rewarded by Hashem.” (Click here for Hebrew text)
At first this does not make sense. Why would one who is mourning need to be told to energize oneself to be quick and act with alacrity, especially for someone as like Aharon HaKohen, who was known by all as one who ran after peace, bringing spouses, friends and fellow Jews back together again, who might otherwise have started a skirmish amongst each other. He was beloved by all and a tremendous loss to the nation; one would think that proper mourning in this instance would be automatic! However that might be true when it comes to just crying  but it is not easy to give a eulogy, especially a proper one which is befitting of a tremendous sage and leader of the Jewish people. It must be then that it is very easy to make up excuses, become lazy, and push off eulogizing, expecting someone else do it, or to not capture the full picture of whom this sage was and the impact he had on humanity. Therefore, the Jews were rewarded for acting with zeal and alacrity to properly eulogize the great sage they had loss and to truly appreciate what was taken from them.

However, if you delve deeper into the matter, it would seem there could have been some sort of claim against them if they had been lazy and not properly eulogized Aharon. They might have even lost the battle against the King of Arad. Why would it be considered laziness to not quickly and properly eulogize Aharon? They were in immense emotional distress over their sudden loss. Isn’t it possible that they simply couldn’t pull themselves together emotionally to the degree necessary in order  to properly eulogize him? Why would that have been defined ass laziness? They couldn’t help it; they were distraught; they couldn’t think straight!

Rather, we must say that no matter what emotional state (obviously short of clinical senselessness) a person is in, one has the capacity to pull  oneself together, to be in control, and to use  one’s intellect to act in the proper manner. It would seem it is even expected of us to do so. That is why it would be laziness to not properly eulogize the sage as quickly as possible, and why the Jews were rewarded for acting with the proper zeal and alacrity to eulogize Aharon as soon as he passed away.

Korach – Superheroes

In this week’s Torah portion of Korach we find an unsuccessful revolt against Moshe and Aharon. While over a myriad of rebels died, the Jewish people complained: “All the congregation of the Children of Israel were muttering to each other the next day about Moshe and Aharon saying, ‘You have killed the nation of Hashem!’” (Bamidbar 17:6). Even so, a few verses later it says: “Moshe says to Aharon, ‘Take the pan and put upon it fire from the alter and place incense upon it and quickly go to the congregation and atone for them, for wrath has gone out from before Hashem; the plague has begun’” (verse 11). Aharon stopped the plague, but not before 14,700 people died, in addition to those who were killed in the revolt of Korach.
The Ralbag learns an incredible lesson about leadership from this episode: “It is befitting for a complete leader to put in [all] his effort to protect his followers as much as he could. Even if they are rebelling against him he should not slack in saving them. For we see that even with the people’s bad character of complaining about Moshe and Aharon over the ill fate of the sinners who stood up against them, which were really their own fault, still in all, Moshe put in every effort possible to save them and to switch their evil intentions. This is even though the people really should not have complained about Moshe in this matter, still, when Moshe saw them rebelling against him which was the reason why the wrath flew out from Hashem to annihilate them, [Moshe] was quick to put in effort to save them. For this reason he commanded Aharon to sacrifice incense quickly in order to remove the plague from the nation.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We see from this Ralbag what a true leader, a “complete leader” really is. He has to be a superhero, a man of steel: nothing and no one can phase him – even if they start a mutiny and incorrectly blame all their problems on him. Even if it is not at all his fault, he must be ready and willing to protect his people from whatever harm might come THEIR way, as quickly as possible, even in the case of a plague sent directly from the hand of G-D. That is his role, and it is what is expected and required of him.

However, if one digs deeper into the matter, something quite astonishing can be seen. It would seem that if Moshe had not been their leader, and rather was just someone being picked on who may have had it in his power to save their lives, it would seem that there would not be any claims against him if he had let all of them die out. Indeed, why should there be? Imagine the verbal abuse, the barrage of hurtful words being thrown at him, the innuendos, the people literally ready to lynch him – why should he feel the need to save their lives? Even Moshe, the humblest person in the world who was naturally sensitive to other people’s needs, would have, it seem from this Ralbag, been well within his rights to not have taken action to save them from their own demise. It was only because he was their leader that he was expected, and “it is befitting” for him to do whatever was within his means to save them.

The Ralbag is teaching a lesson to every leader, not just praising Moshe. Leaders are expected to care for his or her people, whatever cost. And every leader has the potential to be a superhero, unfazed by how others judge him or her. It is not so easy; if he or she would not have been the leader, then there would not be the expectation to go so far as to completely look the other way in the face of public scrutiny.  Now that he or she is a leader, however, each leader has the potential inside of themselves to overcome the feelings of hurt and insult in order to act with alacrity and zeal in an effort  to save his or her followers.

Shelach – Reward for a Good Deed

Did you ever think about why Canaan merited having the Land of Israel named after him, as we see in many parts of the Torah?
The Medrish Rabba in this week’s parasha of Shelach (parasha 17, paragraph 3) says in the name of Rabbi Zachai D’shaev: “The Jews said to Hashem, ‘King of the Universe, in many places we find you the land, The Land of Canaan and here (Bamidbar 15:2) you call it the Land of Your Inheritance?’ Hashem said back to them, ‘I swear on your lives that I gave [the land] to Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov, this could be found in the Torah verses, and sons inherit their father that is why it is called The Land of your Inheritance.’ So why did Canaan merit that the land be named after him, [i.e. The Land of Canaan]? When they heard the Jews coming they evacuated the area. Hashem said, ‘You evacuated the area, the land will therefore be called in your name and I will give you a beautiful land like your land.’ And which land is that? Africa.” (Click here for Hebrew Text)

The Maharz”u on this Medrish points out, based on a Medrish in Devorim (5:14), that it was in fact the people Gergashi, the son sof Canaan, who evacuated their cities and did not put up a fight. The Medrish there says that Yehoshua sent out treaties of surrender to each city. Whoever wanted to leave could leave, whoever wanted to make peace could make peace, and whoever wanted to fight could fight. The people of Gergashi got up and fled and G-D gave them Africa. With the Givonim who decided to make peace, Yehoshua made a peace treaty with them. However 31 kings came to fight with the Jews and Hashem delivered them into Yehoshua’s hands. (Click here fore Hebrew text)

The Maharz”u quotes a different Chaza”l as proof that Gergashi moved to Africa, which says that in the times of King Alexander the people of Africa demanded legal action against the Jews, claiming the Land of Israel which their forefather Canaan once lived on.

Why did Canaan really deserve to have the land named after him? It is not like they had the intention of fulfilling the will of G-D by leaving their homeland. They left because they were afraid of being annihilated by the Jewish People; and it wasn’t even all the children of Canaan who fled, as the 31 kings were also descendants of Canaan. Furthermore, the future generations who fled to Africa later tried to lay claim to the land, in the times of King Alexander. So why did Hashem reward Canaan with the naming rights?

We see from here the way Hashem executes judgment. When a good deed is done, He focuses on the action without any ramifications. The pure essence of their actions, which resulted in a positive favor to the Jewish people, even if it was just one nation out of 33, warranted a reward, in the form of having the name of The Land of Israel called Canaan throughout the Torah, and the present of the entire continent of Africa in place of their homeland.

Hashem rewards all people, Jew and non-Jews, for their good deeds. Imagine what the reward must be for doing a good deed, solely for the sake of Heaven, without any regrets?!

Bihaaloscha – Crutches

Yisro, Moshe Rabbenu’s father-in-law, intended to leave the Jewish people to go back to Midian, but in this week’s Parsha, Bihaaloscha, Moshe asks him to stay: “Moshe said to Chovav son of Reuel, the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moshe, ‘We are journeying to the place of which Hashem has said I shall give it to you. Go with us and we shall treat you well, for Hashem has spoken of good for Israel.’ He (Yisro whose name is also Chovav) said to him, ‘I shall not go; only to my land and my family shall I go.’ He (Moshe) said ‘Please do not forsake us, inasmuch as you know our encampment in the desert, and you have been eyes for us. And it shall be that if you come with us, then with the goodness with which Hashem will benefit us, we will do good to you’” Bamidbar, 10:29-32. Ultimately, Yisro parted ways from his son-in-law and the Jewish People.

Moshe gave a reason why Yisro should stay: “you have been eyes for us” (verse 31). The Rabbeinu Bachye elaborates that Moshe intended for Yisro to be a tour guide for the Jewish Nation. But the Rabbeinu Bachye then asks: what would have been the need for Yisro if the Clouds of Glory, signaling direct Divine intervention, were guiding the Jews through the desert? The Rabbeinu Bachye answers that Moshe requested this in order to strengthen the hearts of those amongst them who had little faith, whose hearts would be more comforted and strengthened by a human leader. (Click here for Hebrew text)

The Jews that Moshe was referencing must have been a very small percentage of the population; who could have that little faith after not only witnessing but being a part of all the miracles, glory, and awesome power of the Exodus from Egypt, Splitting of the Sea, and receiving the Torah at Har Sinai? Not only that, but they had also been traveling for some time while receiving food from heaven, fresh water flowing out of a rock, and the Clouds of Glory already guiding them! Yet there seems not to have been any claims by G-D or Moshe against those who did not feel comfortable enough to totally trust the Clouds of Glory, and Moshe just wanted to strengthen their faith in Hashem and their feeling of security by enlisting Yisro, who, knowing the desert like the back of his hand, would fill that void by leading the way through the Wilderness into the Holy Land.

Yet how would having a human, corporeal, tour guide strengthen those who had little faith? On the contrary, one would think that this would lead them to rely even less on Hashem, and more on the person?

However, Moshe in his profound wisdom and with his solid grip on human nature understood that some people require a crutch in order to strengthen their security and trust in Hashem. Just as a person with a broken leg uses a crutches to help him walk, enabling him to get back on his feet. But on the other hand, just as the individual can become too reliant on the crutches, harming his rehabilitation, so too, as in anything in life, there are ideal situations and there is the crutch. One can become reliant on the crutch and never grow out of it, but one can also use the crutch to help him or herself become better and strengthen his or her weaknesses.
It is up to you to choose to use a crutch, when needed, in the proper manner.

Naso – When Hashem Turn His “Face” To You

In the middle of this weeks Torah portion of Naso we find the famous Priestly Blessings recited by the baal koreh [prayer leader] or any kohanim [members of the preistly tribe of Aharon] present during the repetition of the shemoneh esrei every morning in Eretz Yisrael [Israel], as well as given by parents to their children on Shabbos night at the dinner table. The blessing is as follows: “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, Speak to Aharon and his sons, saying: So shall you bless the Children of Israel, saying to them: ‘May Hashem bless you and safeguard you. May Hashem illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you. May Hashem lift His countenance to you and establish peace for you.’ Let them place My name upon the Children of Israel and I shall bless them” (Bamidbar 6:22-27).
The Rashbam remarks on the last of the Priestly blessing, “May Hashem lift his countenance to you…” as it is written (Vayikra 26:9) ‘I will turn My attention to you, [I will make you fruitful and increase you; and I will establish My covenant with you.’] That He will not hide His face from you. Now when the Torah writes (Devarim 10:17) ‘…Who does not show favor [i.e. lift His countenance] this refers to Hashem not “lifting his face” or showing favor towards a person who has sinned and purging all his sins. However He does show favor or “lifts His countenance” towards His loved ones who turn towards Him in order to shower them with graciousness as it is written (Vayikra 26:9) ‘I will turn My attention to you, I will make you fruitful…’” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
By definition Hashem is all good and kind; yet He is also all knowing and conducts creation within the framework of truth. He sets the limits of reward and punishment. It makes sense that it is unjust to completely ignore the sins of mankind and wipe them clean as if they never existed if there was no attempt from man to mend his ways by doing teshuva (repenting). However it would seem from the juxtaposition the Rashbam makes that we might have thought being gracious to those who walk in Hashem’s ways, who act like His children and loved ones, is also an injustice, a lack of honesty. 

Why should this follow? Why would we think that showering those that deserve blessing with rewarding and showing them favor with plenty would be a lack of honesty? Hashem sets the rules; why can’t He shower as much reward as he feels appropriate upon those who follow Him!?

It would seem that the concept of “lifting His countenance,” or showing favor, is to go to an extreme by offering something which, in truth, is undeserved. This is certainly true for just erasing, for no reason, the sins of those who transgressed Hashem’s commandments. However one might think that even showering His graciousness on His loved ones who do walk in His ways would also be extreme because no one is perfect, as it says: “A righteous person falls seven times…,” therefore it seems the blessing of “may Hashem lift His countenance” to favor you is a lack of honestly. The Torah is therefore teaching us that Hashem focuses on the good His children do, and those good deeds are deserving of all the blessing in the world.

Bamidbar – A Lesson in Parenting from Our Father in Heaven

This week we start the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar [Numbers]. The very end of the Torah portion, we find enumerated the family of Kehas, from the tribe of Levi, along with the role they played in carrying and setting up the Ohel Moed [Tent of Meeting].  The Torah portion concludes (Bamidbar 4:17-20): “Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying ‘Do not let the family of Kehas be cut off from among the Levites. Thus shall you do for them so that they shall live and not die: when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aharon and his sons shall come and assign them, every man to his work and his burden. But they shall not come and look as the holy is inserted, lest they die.”
The Sforno goes into great detail, verse by verse, on what Hashem was warning the Levites about: “[You] shall not let [the family of Kehas] be cut off… (Verse 18)” meaning, don’t allow them to choose the role of bearers of the Mishkan in a fashion that whoever is there first wins the role. This fashion of choosing roles will come to one pushing another and will profane that which is Holy. This would be a reason to cut them off [from the nation], as was told over in Gemara Yoma 22a by the cleanup of the ashes on the alter. “[Aharon and his sons] shall come and assign them, every man to his work and his burden (verse 19)” and not in a fashion of whoever gets there first wins rather each person should wait for his command to do something. “But they shall not come and look…(verse 20)” In this manner, they will not enter to observe when the Kohen covers the holy vessels in such a manner as to be able to precede others, and thereby they will avoid the pitfall of conducting themselves in a frivolous fashion, bringing upon themselves the death penalty.
Whoever merited carrying the parts of the Mishkan throughout the journeys in the desert were chosen by Aharon and his sons, unlike the system of first come first serve, which was what took place by the daily removal of the ashes from the alter after all the offerings were burnt. It was arranged in this orderly fashion in order not to profane the sanctity of the Holy vessels and parts by acting in an inappropriate way. (Click here for Hebrew text)

The first mishna of the second chapter in Yoma relates that originally whichever Kohen from the family assigned to work in the Beis Hamikdash for that week who wanted to take off the ashes from the alter in the early morning would do so. However, when there were a lot of people interested in doing the job they would have a race up the alter ramp, which was around 50 feet long, and the first one to get within around six feet of the platform at the head of the alter would win the job. This practice was ended after an incident in which two kohanim, who were neck-to-neck racing up the ramp, and one pushed the other off and broke his leg. When the Jewish court saw that this system was becoming dangerous, they decreed that there should be a lottery to decide who would get the job each day, just as was used to divvy out the other jobs in the Beis Hamikdash.

The Gemara in Yoma asks: why wasn’t there a lottery to begin with, to avoid any problems? The Gemara answers that because this was a job done at night the kohanim would not think it is such an important job and it would never come to any fighting. Once they saw that it was still popular and, it in fact, led to danger, then they were forced to enact a decree of a lottery to choose who does the job. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Based on this Sforno quoting the Mishna, the obvious question should return: how was this allowed to be done in the first place? Even the slightest chance of profaning Hashem’s name and disgracing his Holy House should have been avoided at all costs, as seen in this Torah portion. If by just carrying the parts of the Mishkan as Hashem warned, with the penalty of being cut off from the nation, not to act in this frivolous fashion, then all the more so when actually doing a part of the service in the Holy Temple this frivolous business should have been avoided from the start?

We must therefore say that something which is imminent or at least has a good chance of causing a chilul Hashem, a defiling of Hashem’s sanctity, should be avoided at all costs. But when it gets ambiguous, even if there is a slight chance something bad could result, Hashem does not require actions to be taken at first to avoid a serious problem.

We see from here an important lesson in parenting. Hashem, our Father in Heaven, who should be treated with the utmost respect, only takes precautions against the danger of defiling His holiness when it is more common for something like that to happen. However when the chances are slim, like in the case of the removal of the ashes which was done in the wee early morning before the sun came up, then Hashem gave his children, the Kohanim, the chance to act in a diligent and respectful manner in order to get the job done. Only after something actually went wrong did the Rabbis have to come in and create a lottery in order to avoid any worse danger.

Our parenting also should be in a manner to ensure proper precautions are taken to avoid imminent or common problems. We should also give our children room to do things themselves and to choose to do things the appropriate way in circumstances in which it is highly unlikely that something terribly wrong would happen. And if one does see that something wrong is happening, it is at that point that appropriate precautions should be taken to ensure that it does not get any worse.